Florida Church Sues Amazon, Law Center Over Hate-Group Listing

(CN) – A Florida ministry accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of defamation after the center’s hate-group designation caused Amazon to deny the church’s application to fundraise through the internet giant’s charitable website.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Montgomery, Ala., Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc. accused Amazon of religious discrimination and GuideStar USA and the SPLC of falsely labeling it as an anti-LGBT hate group.

Coral Ridge does business as D. James Kennedy Ministries and is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It began in 1974 and produced a television show “Truths that Transform,” and a radio show by the same name.

The Alabama-based SPLC has marked D. James Kennedy Ministries on a hate map it maintains. It also wrote about the ministry in a November 2010 article titled, “18 Anti-Gay Groups and Their Propaganda.”

The ministry claims in the lawsuit its views on LGBT issues are “inextricably intertwined” with its religious beliefs as to what the Bible says about human sexuality.

“The mission of the Ministry is to proclaim the Gospel upon which this nation was founded, to teach and nurture the followers of Jesus, to equip and encourage believers, and to defend religious liberty,” the complaint states. “Nowhere in the purpose or action of the Ministry is there hate or any room for hate.”

The lawsuit comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

D. James Kennedy Ministries’ complaint quoted that ruling: “As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 2015: ‘Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.’ Therefore, as a matter of law, religious based opposition to same-sex marriage and the homosexual agenda is not hate speech, but rather is a position that the U.S. Supreme Court has labeled ‘decent and honorable.’”

In January, the ministry claims it tried to sign up for the AmazonSmile program, which gives charities 0.5 percent of a customer’s purchase price if they shop on smile.amazon.com and designate that charity as a recipient.

But after several unsuccessful attempts to sign up, according to the complaint, the ministry contacted AmazonSmile’s customer support and learned it was ineligible because of SPLC’s hate group designation.

According to AmazonSmile’s website, eligible charitable organizations must be registered with IRS as a nonprofit located in the United States. They also cannot support violence, illegal activities or intolerance.

“Amazon relies on the US office of Foreign Assets Control and the Southern Poverty Law Center to determine which registered charities fall into these groups,” the site says.

The ministry also allegedly learned that GuideStar USA, which compiles information on nonprofit groups, recently added SPLC’s hate group designations to 46 charity profiles. GuideStar gives AmazonSmile the IRS information on nonprofit groups.

In a June blog post explaining the company’s decision, GuideStar’s CEO Jacob Harold wrote, “If a user does not consider the SPLC’s analysis to be legitimate, we invite him or her to ignore it. We would say the same for any other type of data we share.”

But the lawsuit alleges that when Amazon put SPLC’s designations into its software, it was programmed to be a binary, yes-no decision.

“The information that SPLC published concerning the Ministry is not merely opinion, but rather, is intended as factual information,” the lawsuit said. “It is SPLC’s intent that the people who receive the information that SPLC publishes about the Ministry will rely on SPLC’s information as fact and will base their charitable giving decision on that information.

D. James Kennedy Ministries says it sent letters to GuideStar and the SPLC on Aug. 7 asking them to publicly remove the organizations’ hate-group designation, but neither group did.

In its lawsuit, the ministry seeks punitive damages from GuideStar and SPLC for claims of defamation and violation of the Lanham Act for allegedly misusing the ministry’s trademarked name.

It accused Amazon.com and AmazonSmile of violating the Civil Rights Act for allegedly discriminating against its religious beliefs.

The ministry seeks injunctive relief prohibiting the internet giant from excluding it from the AmazonSmile program.

It is represented by Charles E. Hall Jr. in Dadeville, Ala., and David C. Gibbs III, president of the National Center for Life and Liberty in Bartonville, Texas.

In a statement about the lawsuit, Frank Wright, president of D. James Kennedy Ministries, said, “These false and illegal characterizations have a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion and on religious free speech for all people of faith.”

“Those who knowingly label Christian ministries as ‘hate’ groups, solely for subscribing to the historic Christian faith, are either woefully uninformed or willfully deceitful,” Wright said.

Neither the SPLC nor Amazon immediately responded Friday to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

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